Letter from Sofia

While EU luminaries such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel constantly «on a quest to find Europe’s soul» – or newly elected French President Nicolas Sarkozy call for the resurrection of the EU constitution, a newcomer, Bulgaria, yesterday went to the polls for a European cause: its first-ever European elections held across the country. Under torrential rain and violent thunderstorms that hit Sofia after a long period of prematurely high temperatures and catastrophic drought, Bulgarians went to the polls to elect the 18 MEPs who will sit in the European Parliament until June 2009. Until recently, the newest EU members – Bulgaria and Romania – had «temporary» MEPs nominated by their national parliaments. Persuading Bulgaria’s 6.7 million potential voters to participate in yesterday’s election was crucial. In a country where the minimum wage is -200 per month, it has been estimated that some -1 billion were given in bribes last year. This is about the same amount Bulgaria expects to receive in EU funds this year. The moral: Corruption rules in Bulgaria. A major political controversy plus a mafia scandal rocked the country in the runup to the election. Ten days ago, Bulgaria’s Economy and Energy Minister Rumen Ovcharov was suspended and sent on obligatory leave by Prime Minister Sergei Stanishev in the wake of a wide-ranging corruption investigation. Then last week, Alexander Tasev, president of Bulgarian soccer team Lokomotiv Plovdiv, was shot to death by an unknown gunman in Sofia. Tasev is the third president of the club to be slain in a mafia-style killing. «It is quite possible that the scandals which marred the MEP election campaign made voters hesitant,» Bulgaria’s President Georgi Parvanov declared after casting his ballot yesterday. «There is always some sort of a punishment vote and these elections provide a good opportunity for Bulgarians to exercise it,» he added. Understandably yesterday, by around 11 a.m. only 4 percent of Bulgarians eligible to vote had done so. Nevertheless, the governing Socialists, the senior partner in Bulgaria’s three-way ruling coalition, are expected to come out on top with as many as seven of the 18 seats, followed by a new center-right party led by Sofia Mayor Boiko Borisov, who is set to grab four seats. The other two parties in the ruling coalition, the ethnic Turk Movement for Rights and Freedoms and the center-right Simeon II National Movement, are expected to win at least three seats and one seat respectively. The results will be known on Wednesday and a full list of the 18 elected members will be available on Friday. Whatever the result, as of today Bulgarians will be dancing on fire. Along with – some – Greeks. For Orthodox Christians – and the majority of Bulgarians are Orthodox Christians May 21 is a major holiday. It is the Feast of the Holy and Great Sovereigns Constantine and Helen. At the age of 80, Helena was said by some account to have been placed in charge of a mission to gather Christian relics, by her son Emperor Constantine I. In Jerusalem it is said that she found the True Cross. Although there are two conflicting versions of the event. According to one, Helena was led to the spot in a dream, while in the second, less creditable version, she extorted the information from an elderly rabbi by casting him down a well and leaving him there for a week. At any rate, on the feast of St Helen the custom of walking on burning coals is still observed in northern Greece. Yet only on May 21 and only in two villages in northern Greece. In Bulgaria, the tradition of the «nastenarka» differs: The dance over flaming embers has since the days of Socialism largely been dropped from the ritual, becoming merely a tourist attraction in a coastal area of the Black Sea. Nonetheless, some religious legends are still alive in Bulgaria, where Saints Constantine and Helena is a flashy resort town on Bulgaria’s Black Sea coast, within a landscaped park some 10 kilometers north of Varna. Furthermore, according to one legend, a piece of the True Cross was also buried in a part of Bulgaria known as the Forest of the True Cross, near the city of Plovdiv. Believers claim that at night the sky above the location opens up and the pure of heart can receive divine messages. I do not know whether this is true. What I do know is that most of the relics of the True Cross now venerated in various places have a clear descent from the relic venerated in the first half of the 4th century. At least that is what a monk in the Bulgarian St George monastery on Mount Athos once told me. It was also once believed by the vulgar that there were enough pieces of this «true cross» to build a battleship. During my stay in Bulgaria, I heard opinions that vary spectacularly concerning this Forest of the Cross, also known as the Bulgarian Jerusalem. Still, this subject along with the political corruption scandals, the projected price increase of electricity expected to become effective on July 1 plus the high vacation property prices on the Black Sea coast which have already touched -1,600/sq.m. seemed to be more important than the elections. Attitudes toward Europe played little part in influencing turnout at the European parliamentary elections, with Euroskeptics and Europhiles equally likely to abstain.